Monday, December 31, 2007

Report: The Voyage 2007

It was a simple idea to create another end-of-year summary Report for The Voyage 2007, but it turned out to be a complicated and difficult process. So many great experiences have happened this past year that it was very had to select what to include. Even after paring thousands of photos down to hundreds, then paring those down to dozens, it was still looking like it would take a symphony-length music video to do it justice. In the end, I picked one of my favorite pieces of music from Hobo Jim and let the lyrics guide my selection in a more-or-less chronological order. With sincere apologies to those of you who have been such a wonderful part of The Voyage this year but who are not included in the final cut, I offer you this Report along with my profound thanks for a truly marvelous and memorable year.

Logbook: Last Stop La Spezia

Laststoplaspezia1Thursday was a pretty grueling travel day as it took four trains -- and over 12 hours! -- to complete the Ljubljana-Venezia-Firenza-Pisa-La Spezia route. The two middle trains in Italy ran late which meant I missed my connections and had to improvise along the way. Once again having none of the local language or any familiarity with local ways of doing things added to the complexity. Being the object of attention of an extremely drunk woman of questionable repute throughout one entire leg of the trip pretty much put things over the top. As you can see from my European rail/ferry map, I've had pretty extensive exposure to the milieu since April and have to admit that this was the most exhausting trip of the lot. Upon arrival in La Spezia -- my last stop in Europe! -- at about 10pm I opted for a cab ride to my hotel and barely had enough energy to find some food before crashing.

Laststoplaspezia2I slept in a little bit on Friday and mostly made it a recovery day, but I did venture out enough to get a brief glimpse of the town. Overall, La Spezia, is a fairly compact little city nestled at the base of a moderate coastal mountain and has a mix of narrow, winding pedestrian streets and chaotic vehicular avenues. There is a fairly extensive green space along the waterfront with plenty of statues and places to sit. The fact that the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was moderate made it quite pleasant overall. The harbor is lovely and it is a treat to be near the water again. I did struggle a bit with being out of sync with the clock here, as restaurants all seemed to be closed at what I thought were meal times and shops seemed to be open at quite odd intervals. I chalked it up to still being pretty wiped out from the day before and expected to get in sync in due course.

Laststoplaspezia3The past three days have been "mixed-use" ones for me, fairly well balanced between being inside to handle online stuff and going outside to do exploration and chores. I'm afraid I can't report that I have had much success yet at getting in sync. Shops that are open when I first see them and note their location for later are closed when I return. I think the main problem here is that I tend to be out and about in the middle of the day when the local culture seems to be pretty much shut down for extended lunch. I also have not yet had an easy time of finding a meal, and have been somewhat unimpressed with what I have gotten. Admittedly, I don't understand a lot of what's written on the menus -- and I really don't get the whole first plate, second plate, multiple course thing -- so I'm certainly at a disadvantage to give the cuisine a fighting chance. I did have the good fortune of finding one little cafe where a nice lady in a chef's outfit seemed to understand that I just wanted to eat. She fed me well and I enjoyed the wine that has her picture on the label. If present trends continue, I may just make dining at her place my daily routine!

Laststoplaspezia4I'm afraid I also cannot report that I am growing fonder of La Spezia as my time here goes on. On closer inspection, the city is a little shabby, with a fairly high proportion of moderately run down buildings. There is a lot of construction going on which adds to the messiness level, plus there is trash and graffiti pretty much everywhere. The large colonnaded walkways on the main streets are quite nice and the pedestrian streets are attractive in spots, but the overall impression is not that great. While I can't say that I don't like La Spezia, I can't really say that I like it either. Normally I would chalk it up to experience and move on, but I need to be here for a couple of more days until my ship arrives and I head out to sea. I may make a day trip to the nearby Cinque Terre, but since I've got some "end of year" stuff to handle and a fair amount of preparation yet to do in advance of being at sea -- and possibly completely out of touch -- for 34 days, I will probably postpone that exploration until another time when I will be able to give it more attention than a quick, one-day glimpse.

It is now New Year's eve and I'm going to head out to see what's going on. A little bit later I will post a Report I've been working on to celebrate The Voyage in 2007. It has been a fantastic year for me, and I look forward to more great exploration in 2008. I wish you a very happy New Year as The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Musing: Update re. UK Cameras

You may recall that back in July I posted a Musing entitled "EuroTerror" in which I wrote briefly about the abundance of surveillance cameras in the UK. Well, it seems that not all Brits are taking this enhanced level of "security" in stride. Granted, the cameras involved are those of the "speed" or "traffic" variety, but as Dvorak puts it: "Are we finally seeing a little resistance from the notoriously stoic Brits?" This article in Wired tells the story, and you can see a selection of related photos here. It seems I may have been wrong about the "stiff upper lip" stuff of Britain being "as good a way as any of not letting something you can’t do anything about ruin your daily life." It looks like maybe they can -- and will -- do something about it. Cheers!

Logbook: Correction re. Slovenia

I have just received this helpful bit of history from my good friend Matt in Vienna and wanted to share it as a correction of what I wrote about Slovenia... Thanks, Matt!
"Slovenia was not an Eastern bloc country. As a part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was indeed Communist. However, Tito broke with the Soviet Union early and Yugoslavia belonged, along with, for instance, China, to the club of the Neutral and Non-Aligned Nations during the Cold War. Though Tito tried to steer a course independent of both the US and the USSR, Western culture predominated. For instance, US films were shown on state-run TV in English with Serbo-Croatian or Slovenian subtitles so many middle-class Yugoslavs spoke (and speak) magnificent American English!"
No wonder Ljubljana seemed so "western" to me!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Logbook: Graz - Ljubljana

Friday was "moving day" so I did my usual routine of getting up an going pretty early. Whenever I have been someplace for more than a few days -- like I was in Vienna for almost three weeks -- it takes a little longer than normal to complete the moving process. For one thing, the longer I am someplace the more I inevitably take stuff out of my gear bag and have it scattered around my room and it takes me just a few extra minutes to sort it out and pack it up. For another, I typically become quite friendly with my hosts during longer stays and I happily take a little extra time to say fond farewells. Nevertheless, by 8:30 in Vienna I had packed, had breakfast, checked out, parted company with the Rothensteiners and was walking down Neustiftgasse to the 13A bus for the 30 minute ride to Sudbanhoff. Although I had certainly gotten my money's worth out of my weekly metro card, it was still valid for three more days so I gave it to a nice old lady on the bus who smiled and thanked me like it was a winning lottery ticket. It's the little things that make life particularly sweet on The Voyage!

Grazljubljana1The train ride from Vienna to Graz passes through lovely countryside and among what I believe are the eastern foothills of the Alps. A light dusting of snow in the trees and a modest blanket of snow on the ground made it a beautiful trip, but it was the bright blue sky that gave me some hope I might finally be leaving the bad weather behind me. Sadly, the skies progressively clouded over throughout the three hour ride and by the time I arrived in Graz it was downright dark, cold, blowing and snowing. I found a perfectly satisfactory place to stay right near the train station, checked in and dumped myself as usual, but stood at the window for a few minutes to survey the bleak scene and consider whether I really wanted to go out and explore in it. After due deliberation and a check of the weather forecast -- which promised improving weather -- I decided to stay in and take the afternoon off. (I will admit that being half way through yet another really great Jack Reacher thriller was part of my decision and I had a most enjoyable afternoon finishing it up!)

Grazljubljana2The weather did clear up a bit on Saturday morning and although it was still gray and overcast the temperature was just high enough to melt the snow, so I seized the opportunity and headed out pretty early. Graz, it turns out, is a charming little city. Although much smaller than Vienna, it is big enough to have a lot going on. It also has all the Austrian style and flair without so much of the big-city commercial feeling. There is an efficient little tram system that runs down the main streets and right through the otherwise pedestrian-only malls and shopping streets. Being the last Saturday before Christmas, the city was thoroughly decorated and last-minute shoppers were out in force. I had a really nice walkabout for a couple of hours then stopped for a bite to eat. While I was inside I could see the weather turning bad again and by the time I finished my lunch it was once again dark, freezing cold, blowing and snowing. Thankful for my few hours of decent exploration, I headed back to my room and called it a day. Sunday was a complete disaster in terms of weather, so I only ventured out briefly on a few occasions for meals and a quick trip to the train station to get my onward ticket. Thus, while I only spent about two and a half hours out of as many days actually checking out Graz, I really liked what I saw. I would put it at the top of anyone's list of places to visit in Austria, including my own list for the future.

Grazljubljana3Monday was "moving day" again, but -- due to my very brief time in Graz -- I had neither any extra packing to do nor any fond farewells to attend to. Plus, my train wasn't scheduled to leave until about 10:30 and I was only about 100 meters from the station, so I had a pretty easy, leisurely time of it. As has become my custom to avoid unnecessary last-minute scrambling around on The Voyage, I got to the station about a half hour ahead of my expected departure. The tote board indicated that my train was about five minutes delayed -- a sign of the inclement weather adversely affecting the famously prompt Austrian trains! -- so I had an even longer wait than expected. No worries, I've become quite comfortable with waiting! As you can see in the photo, I had the platform all to myself until just before the train arrived and a small crowd gathered. My seat was in a compartment that I shared with a young Brazilian couple and we talked for a while about various topics, the highlight of which was my sharing the story of my Brazilain visa which completely cracked them up. After a comfortable three hour ride we arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia and I walked about ten minutes toward the old town and found a place to stay. Being the day before Christmas, the place was practically deserted and I got a really good deal! After checking in and dumping my gear I took a brief walk around despite the marginal weather. My first impressions of Ljubljana were very positive and I later called it a day with hopes of decent weather to do some quality exploring.

Grazljubljana4Indeed, the weather on Tuesday was really pretty good and I made the most of it. I spent a few hours in the morning walking all around the attractive -- I would go so far as to say adorable -- old town then hiked up the hill to check out the castle. Because Slovenia is situated at the western most edge of the former Soviet empire -- and right next to Austria and Italy -- it seems to have suffered the least of all the former Soviet republics I have visited. It is very "western" and has a feeling of long standing prosperity. Because it was Christmas day, virtually all of the shops were closed, but many of the old town market stalls were open and selling a wide variety of grilled meat sandwiches and hot spiced wine. I sat on a stool at an outdoor vendor -- under a heater! -- and did my best to sample the local fare. After that I headed away from the old town and out into the newer parts of the city. Although they were far less attractive than the old town area, the newer parts of Ljubljana are far more appealing than other former Soviet cities I have been in recently. Late in the afternoon it got dark pretty quickly and started snowing, so I called it a day after a really enjoyable, solid eight hours of exploration in a city that I would strongly recommend. I went out again for a while today, but the town is pretty well shut down for a second holiday and the weather has been only marginal. Tomorrow morning I will take a train to Venezia, Italy then continue directly to La Spezia. I'm hopeful that the weather on the Mediterranean coast will be better than I have had for what seems like forever on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Logbook: Vienna III -- "The Back Story"

Viennaiii1mapThis Logbook entry isn't so much about what has happened over the past three days as it is about the "back story" of what's been going on for the past three weeks. As I mentioned in a recent post, after almost nine months in Europe I am ready to start moving east again and travel by land is complicated at best and impossible at worst. As a result, I have been trying to arrange sea passage across the Med, down through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to Australia or New Zealand. Because there are no passenger ships traveling along that route -- or any easterly route -- at this time of year, I contacted a number of companies that specialize in booking passengers on freighters. You may or may not be aware that many freighters have a few cabins on board -- primarily for use by company personnel -- that are sometimes made available to the public.

After an exhausting amount of "back and forth" communication both by email and by phone with folks in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand -- including all of the adjustments for time zones that had me up most of the night a few times -- the best I could come up with was a ship leaving the Med in late-January and arriving in Singapore mid-February. This was far from ideal because it would mean I would have to somehow get across Indonesia by some combination of buses and boats which, according to various sources, is pretty much a bummer. Then I'd have to get to Australia somehow and eventually on to New Zealand, both of which are a lot more complicated than you might expect. If it wasn't the only thing available I wouldn't have even considered it, but circumstances dictated that I say, "I'll take it."

Now, because freighters are not designed for common passengers, they do not have many of the features that typical cruise ships do such as elevators or doctors on board. Thus, the "qualifying" process for freighter travel is fairly rigorous and includes multiple disclaimers, a medical certificate verifying fitness, mandatory medical evacuation insurance and a slew of other paperwork. This kind of stuff really isn't my favorite, but I buckled down and ticked things off the list, each time having to print, fill out, sign and fax back the various forms with the help of my gracious hosts here at the Rothensteiner. Also, because I would be transiting the Suez Canal, a yellow fever vaccination is mandatory and mine just expired. So, one thing on my list was to find a local travel medicine clinic and get a shot. (This probably gives you a clue why I wanted to be in a major city like Vienna to make these arrangements!)

Just as all this paperwork was being finalized, I got a call late at night from Hamish in New Zealand who said that there had been a cancellation on a ship from the Med all the way to New Zealand. It would be departing on January 3rd and arriving in NZ about 34 days later. Did I want it? Well, of course I wanted it. But I already had the lousy Singapore deal in process with a company in the UK. What to do? Hamish graciously advised me to call the UK in the morning and tell them I wanted to change, etc. I did exactly as he suggested and was told that although there was a waiting list for that cabin, I already had "money on deposit" for the other sailing which could be applied and put me first in line. The only catch was that I'd have to fill out entirely different paperwork for a different shipping company and get an Australian visa. By the way, they said, the sailing date is in just a couple of weeks so I would only have a few days to get everything sorted out in time to meet the paperwork deadline. So, having spent a preposterous amount of time with the first round of paperwork before and during Jennifer's visit, I had just the past three days to do most of it all over again. Plus, of course, I had to go to the Australian embassy and get an actual visa in my passport because there is some question about whether the on-line visa would satisfy the requirement.

Viennaiii2rickmersThe bottom line is that I did it. Of course I did it. It's what I do on The Voyage. I figure things out and I make them work. Sometimes it's pretty straightforward, but other times it is not. This time has been "definitely not." But, I can report that on or about January 3rd I will be sailing from La Spezia, Italy and arriving somewhere in New Zealand in early-February, about 34 days later. The vessel pictured here is my ride and I have been advised that it is a "good ship." I have also been advised that I have a single cabin port side on E deck and depending on how high the containers are stacked I may or may not have a view out my porthole window. Besides that, I really don't know much except that I'm headed in the right direction on a pretty much perfect route. I'll fill you in on details as I find them out, but you now know as much as I do. Stay tuned!

With all these arrangements finally in place, I am ready to head out of Vienna after a really nice, productive visit. I have enjoyed reacquainting myself with this fabulous city, reconnecting with my good friend Matt and sharing a really great week with Jennifer. Tomorrow morning I will catch a train to Graz, Austria for a couple of days to briefly check out that city which is so highly recommended by so many folks. From there I'm going to make a hop to Ljubljana, Slovenia for a quick look around then continue on to Italy. I hope to stop in Venezia for a couple of days on my way to La Spezia, but I won't know for sure until I get the low down on final sailing schedule from the port agent next week. So, I've got a week or so of pretty fast moving ahead of me, then a month at sea with nothing to do except stare at the water... or maybe at a stack of containers! Color me happy, though, because not only am I back in motion headed east but I've got a long sea cruise ahead of me! Woohoo!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Haircut Chronicle: #11 - Vienna, Austria

Hc11vienna1 Hc11vienna2 Hc11vienna3

#11 - December 19, 2007, Vienna, Austria. My last cut in Poland was such a disaster that I let my hair grow out until I couldn't stand it anymore. I shopped around for a salon here in Vienna until I found Petra who speaks pretty good English. I explained my situation and the disaster of with my last three haircuts and what happens when it's cut too short on top, and, and, and... She seemed to really understand and I was encouraged when she went to work with scissors not clippers. Sure enough, she cleaned up the sides and the back and took practically nothing off top. Hooray! I know it's hard to tell from the photos, but my hair is much, much better and almost back to the way I really like it. Finally, some relief from the angst of the "Haircut Chronicles." Cost: 17 Euro ($25)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musing: Vienna -- Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

This musing is by Jennifer...

Viennajennifer1I arrived in Vienna and it was cold and rainy and I realized that besides barely making my plane that morning I had done little in the way of preparation for this trip. I had been so preoccupied with finishing up school, and then making it to the airport in time, that when I showed up in Vienna my first thought was "Oh, I'm what?" With my first voyage in Paris I had a plan -- things to do, places to go, objectives that I acted upon -- so even wandering around the streets of Paris became a little mission of its own. For Vienna I had no plan, I had no list, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to "take from" this trip. In short, I arrived in Vienna and felt a little out of my element. Able to function, not that intimidated of getting from place A to place B, but I felt that I lacked direction -- I didn't feel as involved with Vienna as I had been in Paris.

Viennajennifer2German was harder for me to pick up than French had been, and the dreary weather made wandering about all day unpleasant. I decided that I should figure out what Vienna was "all about," and so I took a look at the mountain of brochures in the hotel and plotted out my next "plan of attack." I compiled a list, not a massive list but a list nonetheless, of museums and sights and foods to explore; I was determined that I would experience the "true" Vienna, so help me. And so that's what I did: I took a tour of Schonbrunn, I tasted Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte, I saw Klimt's paintings in museums, I stepped foot in Beethoven's and Mozart's apartments... and it was great, but I found that that's not what traveling is about for me. For the most part, I had the most fun in the "getting there" rather than in the "arriving there." Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte... basically country-fried veal and chocolate cake. Even Beethoven's museum turned out to be two rooms of plaques on the walls and a xeroxed copy of the Heiligenstadt Document. But even if the thing itself turned out to be a bust, that didn't demean my experience of being there -- I was looking out the window of Beethoven's apartment, I was looking at his piano. In fact, without traveling out to the boonies of Vienna to get to Heiligenstadt, I would never have figured out the buses, eaten a kabob outside the station, and drank coffee in a retirement center because the museum was closed for lunch. To me, the experience as a whole turned out to be the fun part. It was going to a museum and being more awe-struck by the architecture of the palace than the superb collection of Renaissance paintings, it was wandering through the village square of Bratislava and deciding to get sausages from the stands and then go inside for hot chocolate that turned out to be chocolate soup, it was playing "metro roulette" and getting off at a random station to walk along the Danube even though it was cold and raining, it was meeting my uncle's friend Matt and going to a Turkish restaurant in the district of Vienna he termed "Mesopotamia," it was going to a movie theatre and having a fine dining experience of chips, chocolate, and red wine.

Viennajennifer3So I began to think that maybe I was going about this whole traveling thing the wrong way. I cannot plan my way into experiencing a city, and brochures are useful only to a point. It doesn't matter that I spent a week in Vienna. It doesn't matter what I did or didn't see, what I did or didn't do, what I did or didn't learn. It matters that I went, figured things out, and had a ball doing it. Traveling, for me, really emphasizes that people are the same anywhere you go. They can speak German and have lived next to a Hapsburg palace for generations, but they still have the same hopes and fears and basic needs, and 9 times out of 10 will give you help if you ask with a smile. I had fun and I saw some really cool stuff and I went a lot of places, but this time I didn't compile a checklist. Or, if I did, I stopped checking things off. I learned to react to the unexpected and be flexible with the day ahead. You want soup and get pot roast instead? No problem. You go out to the soup restaurant and it's closed? Falafel sounds good. It's snowing the day you wanted to go out to Schonbrunn? How about Friday. You make a massage appointment and arrive at some guy's apartment who doesn't speak any English? Well, you get a massage. Turns out that a day drip to Frankfurt means a 13 hour train ride? Well, Bratislava is only an hour away. You can't make this stuff up, it's just what ends up happening and it ended up making my trip so enjoyable. It was great. Unforgettable. Another voyage.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Logbook: Vienna II -- Jennifer, Opus 2

Viennaii1My niece Jennifer and I have had another great week together on The Voyage here in Vienna. Although our time together was somewhat hampered by inclement weather, we really made the most of it. On the particularly bad weather days we explored indoor spaces like the fine arts museum pictured here. Truly one of the most astonishing buildings you will ever enter, it's hard to say which is more impressive, the structure or the collection. As she posed for this picture on the grand staircase, Jennifer said, "It's good to be the empress!" Indeed! The rest of the museums and indoor places we visited -- like Mozart's apartments, the House of Music, the Spanish Riding Academy, etc. -- paled a bit by comparison, but we had fun checking them out anyway. To say that there is a lot of art and culture in Vienna is an understatement of epic proportion. You are literally surrounded by it and it is fun just to walk around and take in the sights.

Viennaii2On decent weather days we did outdoor exploration, including visiting soaring Stephansplatz, historical Hofburg and stunning Schonbrunn Palace. Vienna has an excellent transit system that makes covering a lot of ground fast and easy, and Jennifer did her customary job of dominating it. We had "weekly passes" which gave us access to every mode of transportation from subways to streetcars and buses, and we really got our money's worth. One of my favorite excursions was our "Beethoven Day" when we traipsed all over the city to visit some of the master's many domiciles during his time in Vienna. Some of the sites were a little lame, but our finale at his grave was a real highlight and gave me the opportunity to pay my respects to yet another of my personal heroes.

Viennaii3Similar to our time in Paris last summer, we didn't always explore together but we always regrouped for dinner together in the evenings. It would be hard to say that the food in Vienna is great because it seems to consist mostly of meat and potatoes, but it is all edible and satisfying if not very interesting. We had our share of ordering -- or thinking we were ordering -- one thing and getting another, but we just laughed it off and found a way to get by. My friend Matt joined us for a couple of dinners and his local knowledge of places to eat plus fluent German really improved our culinary experience. Not the least of the enhancements to our experience that he was able to provide us were some amazing chocolate desserts that Jennifer somehow forced herself to eat in a true sense of exploration. Way to take one for the team, Jennifer!

Viennaii4Another highlight of our week was "international day" when we took an hour long train ride to nearby Bratislava, Slovakia. My intention was that Jennifer would be able to experience as I have both the routine nature of crossing borders in Europe and the surprising differences between neighboring cultures. It worked perfectly. With worldly, magnificent Vienna fresh in her mind, we rolled into Bratislava with its very different, former Soviet feeling. Instead of being surrounded by countless grand marble buildings, we were amidst standard issue concrete construction. In place of the hustle and bustle of Viennese crowds, we were practically alone on the streets. I mean no disrespect to Bratislava -- it is a wonderful little city of which I am very fond -- but it is so vastly different from nearby Vienna that one really gets a different perspective that I was glad Jennifer got to experience. After a lengthy walk around town we made our way into the old town square where we stuffed ourselves with tasty sausage sandwiches followed by a massacre at a chocolate shop. Once again, Jennifer did her duty and suffered through it in the name of exploration.

Viennaii5If you look at the photo log, you will see a pretty good representation of all the exploration -- and eating -- we did this past week, but I'm afraid you won't see the best part of our time together: the many lengthy and lively conversations we had on a wide variety of topics. Jennifer will be embarrassed that I'm writing this in public, but she has such a bright mind, keen insights and a brave approach to the unknown that she is a delight to be with. She is an extremely good traveler and a fine co-explorer. I think this photo of her waiting for the metro to take her back to the airport speaks volumes. We had such a great time together that I think we were both a little sad it was over. One moment that particularly touched me was when she said, "Being on The Voyage with you is the best. I can't believe more people haven't done it!" Thanks for that, Jennifer, I feel the same about being with you. You are welcome back anytime.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dram: Beethoven's Birthday!

In honor of Beethoven's 237th birthday I am posting this little video Dram from Vienna, starring my niece Jennifer who has once again proven herself to be an outstanding co-explorer on The Voyage! Happy birthday to Beethoven, and thanks to Jennifer!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Logbook: Vienna I

Viennai1I was up and out really, really early on Monday morning in Krakow for a dark and very cold walk to catch my last Polish train out of the country and on to Vienna. As I have written many times by now, I have very much enjoyed my time in Poland and I am very fond of both the country and its people. I would like to visit again at length some time, but it will not be in winter. The weather is just too harsh and unpredictable to be enjoyable or practical. I have also enjoyed my many experiences on Polish trains, and despite their idiosyncrasies I can recommend them. They never fail to amuse and my last experience was no different. A couple of hours out of Krakow we crossed the Czech border and pulled into the first station then waited while "the man" boarded to examine our documents. While this was going on, the last car -- in which I and just a few others bound for Vienna were seated -- was disconnected from the rest of the train and left by itself at the station platform. A few minutes later, "the man" left the train and the platform, followed by the conductors and everyone else who had been in the vicinity. The few of us who remained sat in the silent, cold, darkened car for about half an hour before I and a couple of others decided to wander out onto the platform to take a look. As you can see, it is a bit of an odd site -- and an odd feeling -- to see your "ride" sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere while you wait and hope that the "system" is going to work and remember to pick you up for the rest of your journey! Sure enough, within the next half hour another train pulled up, hooked us up and took us through the Czech countryside for a couple of hours to a crossing point into Austria and then on into Vienna.

My friend Matt -- whom I have known since we went to college together 30 years ago! -- lives in Vienna and had very helpfully set me up in a charming little hotel/apartment that is owned by some of his friends. So, after an easy bus ride from the train station, I was happily checking into my new home, which consists of a bedroom/sittingroom, a bathroom and even a little efficiency kitchen! After dumping my gear, I hit the streets, checked out the neighborhood and found a grocery store where I bought some basics. As usual after a long travel day, I was ready to call it an early night and have a good, long sleep in my new home.

Viennai2Vienna is a city in which I am very comfortable. I think this is partly because I have been here a few times before, but mostly because it is a city that just makes sense to me. So, I enjoyed walking the streets at various times this week while I worked on one of my primary objectives for while I am here, which is to arrange the next major segments of my transportation on The Voyage. I'll save the details for when I get it worked out, but for now I will just say that after eight months in Europe I'm feeling ready to start moving on again. If you look at the map, you will see that land travel heading east from where I am now is very complicated at best and downright impossible at worst. So, I'm working on arranging sea passage through the Suez canal and that is not easy at this time of year either. I really pounded the pavement trying to find a travel agent who could help me, but was completely unsuccessful. Thankfully, there are an ample number of Starbucks to keep me fueled up, something that I will admit I have missed during my time in Poland and the Baltics.

Viennai3Having a good friend like Matt who lives here is certainly another big reason Vienna is such a comfortable place to be, and I have really enjoyed catching up with him. We had dinner on Tuesday night and I accompanied him to a class he teaches at a local college on Wednesday night. Yesterday we took a walk in the famous Vienna Woods -- where I took this photo of him standing next to a remnant of a WWII fortification -- and we had dinner together again last night. Throughout, we have enjoyed the same kind of lively and philosophical conversations that first brought us together in college, proof once again of the old adage that with good friends you can pick up right where you left off no matter the time in between. I look forward to spending more time with Matt over the next week or so while I am here and to using him as the invaluable resource he is for what's what in Vienna!

Viennai4I was up and out early this morning to catch the metro and the train out to the airport to meet my niece Jennifer who has flown in from the States to spend her second week on The Voyage. We had such a good time in Paris that she has decided to give it another shot and I am delighted to have her here. After making our way back to the hotel we got her checked into her room and had a little breakfast while catching up on everything since we last had the chance to talk at length. This afternoon we did a little wandering around to give her a very brief overview and orientation of Vienna then stopped in a cafe for a real meal. We both were in the mood for some nice hot soup, but the chef explained to us that something else on the menu was "the best" so we acquiesced. A few minutes later, two plates of meat and potatoes showed up, giving Jennifer the opportunity to get into the culinary swing right away. After that, she toughed it out for a few hours more but finally gave in to jet lag and has hit the rack, hoping to get herself into shape for taking the lead on our Vienna co-exploration starting tomorrow. So, stay tuned for the next update on that, my transportation challenges and whatever else happens next on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Logbook: Krakow

Krakow1While there really isn't any such thing as a "usual" week on The Voyage, I'm comfortable in reporting that this week has been "unusual." It started out pretty normal as I arrived in Krakow last Sunday afternoon, made the ten minute walk to my hotel and did the routine of checking in, getting settled and taking it easy after a full day of travel, but from then on it was different. I woke up Monday morning to find a pretty good blizzard in progress outside my window, but since I'm not in the habit of letting the weather hinder my exploration I got suited up and went out to have a look around the area. The snow wasn't so bad, but the wind and freezing rain were kind of a bummer so I toughed it out for an hour or so then found a nice place for lunch and went back to my room to spend time online. As you know from the "Universal Health Care" posting below, the slightly stuffy head I went to bed with on Monday night was a raging cold on Tuesday so I declared my first "sick day" on The Voyage and spent it quietly indoors, bundled up and watching movies on my beloved Mac. At the time I decided it was almost just as well because the weather was still horrible. On Wednesday my head was a little less of a mess, but my cold had settled into my chest so I spent another day indoors, only venturing out to join my friends Elke and Gustavo for some spicy Indian food that was both therapeutic for my cold and a delicious alternative to the meat and potatoes Polish fare I've been living on for some time now. Again, the weather was really pretty awful, so I didn't feel like I missed much.

Krakow2On Thursday morning I was feeling better, not 100% but still much better by comparison. I met up with Elke and Gustavo again and we went to the famous salt mines just outside of town. The tour was pretty interesting, including a descent of almost 500 feet down into the mines and a lengthy route through a variety of small tunnels and huge caverns, with intricate carvings and statuary almost everywhere you look. Our guide was speaking in English, but her quiet, high pitched voice did not carry that well and her Polish accent made it a little hard to hear and understand. Elke is completely fluent in English but it is a second language for Gustavo so she and I had some fun acting as interpreters for him from time to time. I tried to take some pictures, but the ambient light was too low and the flash just washed everything out, so there's only this one marginal shot for you to see. All in all it was an interesting tour and I would recommend it if you're ever in Krakow. If nothing else, it was a chance to do something besides sit inside and wait for the weather to clear.

Krakow3I was feeling better still on Friday morning, but the weather was worse than ever, so I decided not to push it an just hung out. Saturday morning dawned a little better and I went across town to have breakfast with Elke and Gustavo in their truck which serves as both their home and headquarters for their global journey. As you can tell, I spent a lot of time with them this week and I really enjoyed their company. They are very bright, energetic and fun, and it was a nice change to be able to talk at length with a couple of fellow voyagers who really know what long-term, long-distance travel is all about. It was a fortunate coincidence that we happened to be in Krakow at the same time, and I look forward both to keeping in touch with them as we go our separate way and to the possibility of meeting up with them someplace else in the world. Good luck, my friends!

Krakow4This morning, finally, the weather had cleared and I was feeling pretty much back up to par. I headed out early and made the most of the mild, sunny day to walk for hours through the Old Town, past Wawel Castle, through the old Jewish Quarter and at length along the Wisla River. Krakow really is a lovely city and it is a delightful, easy place to be. If you want to visit Poland, Krakow is by far the best place to start your experience. The fresh air really did me good and by mid-afternoon I was feeling almost all better and happy about my brief but high quality exploration. So, to sum up, I have been in Krakow for a week but only really explored it for a day. I've had my first illness of The Voyage and I've spent far more time than normal with other people. It has been an "unusual" week. Early tomorrow morning I will conclude my exploration of Poland and catch a day-long train to Vienna. Usual or unusual, the next starts now or maybe sooner!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dram: Trumpetus Interruptus

Legend has it that during a Tatar raid on Krakow, a guard watching from the tower of Mariacki Church in the Old Town center saw the invaders approaching and took up his trumpet. Sadly, his alarm was cut short by an arrow through the throat. Today, every hour on the hour, he is honored by a trumpeter who plays the sombre hejnal melody, halting abruptly at the point he was supposed to have been hit!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Lost In Translation: Krakow, Poland

KrakowhotelwelcomesheetHotel Welcome Sheet

Krakow, Poland

December 2007

Doh!... So close!

I hope they enjoyed my visit because it certainly was memoriable!

Lost In Translation: Krakow, Poland

LongicelandicedteaRestaurant Drinks Menu

Krakow, Poland

November 2007

I had just been thinking about the fact that I haven't posted a "Lost In Translation" in a while when I saw this on the drinks menu at a restaurant. I'll bet that's a cold drink!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dram: Universal Health Care

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and today was the day. What was a bit of a stuffy nose when I went to bed last night was a full-blown head cold this morning. So for the first time in 478 days on The Voyage I'm having a "sick day." I certainly can't complain... and won't. In some ways it's almost just as well, because it's been a blizzard here in Krakow for the past two days and there's not much to do besides hang out in my little room and enjoy a little iLife. So, that's what I've been doing: drinking fluids, watching videos, catching up on email, Skyping the world, taking naps and taking care of myself. There is, of course, an aspect of exploration to everything -- including being sick in a foreign country -- so here's a little story that I thought might be worth a Dram:

UniversalhealthcareAfter a hot shower and a little breakfast this morning, it was obvious that I really did have a raging head cold and that it was going to persist for a while. So, I decided to go out and get myself a large supply of fluids -- juice, tea, water, bullion, etc. -- so that I would be well stocked and could stay in for the rest of the day. I bundled up and went downstairs where I greeted Diana -- the nice lady at the desk -- then put on my best pouty face and said "I have a cold!" She expressed her sympathy and told me that if I wanted anything from the kitchen -- like chicken soup -- all I had to do was call her and she would send it right up. I told her that was very nice and that I appreciated it very much, then walked down the block to a supermarket. There, I had an unusual shopping experience in that I don't usually buy things like orange juice and hadn't had to try to figure out which -- from the astonishing array of products -- I might like best. In the end I just picked a couple of containers that had pictures of oranges and other citrus on them -- along with an encouraging "100%" figure -- because, frankly, "z miazszem bez dodatku cukru" really doesn't mean anything to me.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped in at a pharmacy and -- again with my best pouty face -- told the lady behind the counter about having a cold, to which she replied: "I'm sorry... Welcome to Poland!" I had no hope of figuring out what was what on the shelf, so asked if she could recommend something. Seconds later she had a package of Sudafed in her hand which I said that would do nicely and paid my tab. As I was leaving she called after me and said, "I hope you feel better soon!" How nice is that?

When I got back to my room, two ladies were in the process of making it up. When they saw my "bags o' fluids" and took a look at me, they immediately got the picture. They proceeded to inspect what I bought, give their approval, check my forehead for fever, turn up the radiator, get an extra blanket for my bed and generally make a fuss. One of them went on at length -- in Polish -- with what must have been her version of cold therapy instructions, playing charades that were pretty obviously along the lines of "Drink all of this, sleep all day, stay warm, etc." At one point I swear she said the word "hospital" and I assured her that was unnecessary. They really went out of their way for me and couldn't have been more attentive.

Finally, because I had scheduled with Elke and Gustavo -- my friends from the "Gdansk Gang" who also happen to be here in Krakow -- to get together for dinner tonight, I called them to say I was sick and ask about rescheduling. Elke, bless her heart, said "I'm so sorry! Of course we can reschedule. If you need anything, anything at all, don't hesitate to call. We're only a twenty minute walk from where you are." Do I need to say more?

So, there you have it, a whole different kind of "universal health care." It seems like there's something different everyday that illustrates the kindness of strangers and the goodwill of all people. Even a "sick day" is full of insights on The Voyage.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Logbook: Torun (and Bydgoszcz, By Gosh!)

Torun1One of these days I'll write something special about Polish trains, but for now I'll just paraphrase Forrest Gump and say that they are "like a box of chocolates... You just never know what you're going to get!" With that little teaser in place, I will report that my ride from Gdynia to Torun was a pretty typical mixture of confusion, stress, uncertainty and boredom. Nevertheless, I arrived in Torun more or less unscathed mid-afternoon on Thursday. The train station is located across the Wisla (Vistula) River from the town, so I got my first real glimpse of the city as I walked across the bridge. Once one of the most important Hanseatic capitals -- with history dating back to at least the 13th century -- Torun has had the good fortune of never having been destroyed in any of the many wars that have raged throughout the region. As a result, centuries of architectural evolution can be seen -- intact! -- in its many, many impressive buildings. The weather was pretty lousy, but I took advantage of the fading twilight to take a pretty long, brisk walk around town before surrendering to the dark and gloom. Because it was Thanksgiving, I made a little game out of trying to find some turkey for dinner but ended up, of course, with the usual plate of meat and potatoes. There are some excellent Polish dishes such as Zurek soup -- which is not to be missed! -- but the mainstay of the diet around here is pretty basic. Fatigued from my day of train travel, tired from my long cold walk and with my belly full of grub, I hit the rack pretty early.

Friday morning I got in touch with my friend Krzysztof -- who was part of the staff at the Acarsaid Hotel in Pitlochry, Scotland back in July -- and he invited me to visit him for the afternoon in nearby Bydgoszcz where he is now a student. After making my way to the bus station in Torun, I stood in line practicing what I was going to say to the ticket-woman. Okay, see if you can picture this: I could see that she was an older woman, so I knew it was unlikely that she was going to have much English to add to our communication. With this in mind, I wanted to be sure I said "Bydgoszcz" properly and clearly so as to improve my chances of getting the right ticket for the right bus to the right place. Now, Polish spelling and pronunciation are still virtually impossible for me to handle, so I try to come up with homonyms -- or whatever you call them -- to help me out. For example, to help remember "Bydgoszcz" -- which is more or less pronounced "Bid-gosht" -- I had plugged "By Gosh" into my brain. As you might imagine, the first words out of my mouth to the ticket-woman were, in fact, "By Gosh!" She looked at me just as you also might imagine and I quickly went through my mental conversion process, eventually spitting out "Bid-gosht." In exchange, I got not a ticket but a slip of paper with the number "6" written on it and accompanied by a hurried, dismissive wave of her hand. This, my fellow voyagers, is the universal communication for "Hurry to platform number six, the bus is about to leave and you can get your ticket from the driver." So, off I went to find the platform and hop on the bus just as the driver was about to close the door. I spit out the word "Bid-gosht" and held out my handful of change from which the driver selected the appropriate fare of 9 zloty -- about $3.50 -- then took a seat next to a bundle of overcoats also known as a Polish woman on a local bus.

Torun2About 40 minutes later the bus pulled into the station in Bydgoszcz and I hit the streets. The only GSM chip which currently works in my phone -- at this point I have a real collection of them -- is one from T-Mobile with a UK number, so when I called Krzysztof to say I was in town he had a good laugh at the +44 number that showed up on his caller ID. Anyway, about 15 minutes later he and his girlfriend Paulina arrived at the station and we went on our way. Bydgoszcz is a pretty large polish city with a concentration of commerce and universities, so Krzysztof was quick to point out that it is not much of a town from a historical or tourist perspective. Nevertheless, we walked around for a while to view a few interesting sights and get the gist of the town then found a nice place to have lunch. Krzysztof and Paulina are both very bright young people and I enjoyed our free ranging conversation. Like many of their generation, they believe things are getting better in Poland and are hopeful that progress will continue, but they are also eager to explore opportunities beyond their borders. It is a story I have become very familiar with and, as you know, I hope all the best for them and Poland. A quick tour of his school and a quick cup of coffee at his flat later, we went back to the bus station where I was just in time to catch a ride back to Torun. It was a brief but very nice visit with Krzysztof and Paulina, and I very much appreciate their hospitality and friendship. Thank you!

Torun3It was once again very dark -- and have I mentioned cold? -- by the time I got back to Torun, so I had dinner then huddled in my cozy little room before calling it a day. Yesterday was a bit clearer in the morning so I hit the streets in earnest and pretty much devoured the little city of Torun. To be in a Polish city where the old, original buildings so outnumber the new, concrete variety is a real treat. You get a real sense of the wealth and importance that the region once had and it gives you both a better sense of history and more hope for the future. Besides enjoying the architecture, there isn't that much to the town. It was the home of Copernicus and that is a pretty big deal, but the museum in his honor is only so-so. Most of the Old Town is pedestrian-only, so it is a treat to walk around and it is a very popular place to be not only for locals but for many Polish people who visit for weekends and mini-breaks. One of the things I especially enjoyed was the variety of statuary, ranging from typically serious and elegant to more whimsical and casual. There are a few pictures in the Photo Log that you may enjoy. If you visit Poland, a stop in Torun is more than worth it even if only for a day or two like I did. Actually, a day or two is just about perfect.

I was up early this morning, had coffee and a bite to eat then made my way back to the train station. While making my rounds yesterday I had stopped by to get my ticket, so I didn't have to deal with that and was able to concentrate on "train track roulette" instead. (I promise, I'll write something about the trains soon!) I am now on the train to Warsaw where I will connect to Krakow for arrival there mid-afternoon. Although I am definitely heading south, I can't say that the weather is any better or warmer... At least not yet. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Logbook: Goodbye Gdynia

Goodbyegdynia1When I got up last Saturday morning, I was feeling a little lethargic and a brief mental recap of my Baltic excursion pretty much explained why: In three whirlwind weeks I had changed countries, languages, currencies, accommodations and modes of transportation six times. No matter how much experience and expertise I accumulate on The Voyage, there is still a certain amount of exhaustion -- perhaps fatigue is a better word -- that goes along with this kind of exploration. Being back in Gdynia -- a city I already knew pretty well -- and particularly at the Villa Admiral -- a familiar, comfortable place were I was so welcome and well cared for -- meant I could totally relax and I decided to make the most of it. So, I gave myself the weekend "off" and just hung around, chilled out, read books, watched movies, went for walks and had leisurely meals in my favorite cafes. It was a quiet weekend for the hotel as well, so I especially enjoyed having coffee chats with Dominique, Anya and the other lovely ladies who have been such kind and thoughtful hostesses during my stay. My special thanks to all of them for their gracious and much appreciated hospitality!

With that rejuvenating weekend behind me, I was "back at work" on Monday, doing all the things that are involved in catching up with myself and making arrangements going forward. I know this may sound crazy, but when you're in a foreign land it can take a whole day to do your laundry, find a new book in English, buy toothpaste, sort out your gear, etc. It can take another whole day to research and select your next destinations, arrange your transportation and make accommodation reservations. It can also take a whole day to update your website, catch up on email and make Skype calls to all your friends and family who want to know where you are and what you're up to. I certainly don't mind doing any of it -- I actually enjoy it -- but it does continue to amaze me how much time and energy are involved in maintenance and planning rather than exploration. Nevertheless, that's how I have spent the last three days. (Note: Also, my friend Greg -- after his experience on The Voyage in BeNeLux -- says I "make it all look too easy" so I want to make sure I give you "the rest of the story" from time to time!)

Goodbyegdynia2This morning dawned bright, clear and calm, so I grabbed my coffee and went for one last walk around the city that I have become so fond of. After breakfast I checked out, grabbed my gear and shared fond farewells with all my friends at the Villa Admiral then walked to the train station. My last glimpse of Gdynia is the photo you see here, showing the dingy, old gray train station with a bright, shiny new train parked in front of it. If there is one picture which tells the story of Gdynia -- and Poland -- I think this is it. The hardship of the past and the hope of the future is how I look at it. At this moment I am on one of the older variety of trains heading to the ancient city of Torun, the first leg of what will be a more-or-less continuous migration to the south. I will spend the next couple of weeks making a few stops in southern Poland and probably into Slovakia on my way to an arrival in Vienna early next month. At this point I plan to spend a few weeks in that favorite city of mine while I plot my course further south to somewhere in the Aegean, Adriatic, Med, etc., sometime around the first of the year. Meanwhile, it is back to exploration on The Voyage, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Logbook: Finnish Finish

Finnishfinish1Sunday dawned with the prospect of decent weather for my day-trip to Helsinki, so I got up and moving pretty early. I've never been much of a "morning person" but the first blast of freezing cold wind woke me right up and I had a very brisk walk to the ferry terminal. Because I only had a day for my excursion, I opted for one of the "fast ferries" which is a smallish catamaran -- about 200 feet in length -- driven by some kind of "jet" propulsion. Looking off the back of the boat I saw what looked like a lot of steam but figured it was just water mist being kicked up by the "jets." On closer inspection I realized that it was indeed vapor caused by the relatively warm water being churned up and hitting the freezing cold air, just like your breath in winter. The thought of the Baltic Sea water being that much warmer than the ambient air was a bit of a surprise to me, but there you have it. As for the boat itself, with a cruising speed of about 40 knots it is indeed very fast, but I also found it to be very uncomfortable. You know how much I like being on the water, but I didn't really enjoy this ride. Instead of the usual "rolling" that ships do, the fast ferry does more of a side-to-side and twisting motion. I suspect this has something to do with the nature of the wide set hulls, the lack of ballast and who knows what else, but the highly touted "stabilization system" didn't impress me. Nevertheless, an hour and a half later I arrived in Helsinki, cleared immigration and hit the streets.

Finnishfinish2My first impression of Helsinki was pretty positive. It is an attractive capital city with a wide variety of buildings from the obviously very old to the also obviously very new. Its most outstanding features -- as I have come to be familiar with in practically every other city I've been to in the region -- are its many, many churches of all sizes, shapes and styles. One slightly odd thing I noticed immediately was that there were practically no people to be seen anywhere. I chalked this up to it being a cold Sunday morning and the fact that the decent weather I had hoped for based on conditions in Tallinn did not pan out in Helsinki. It was pretty overcast and actually quite dark, so I figured people were probably just staying inside. Undaunted, I enjoyed a lengthy walk pretty much all over the city, listening to some podcasts on my iPod and snapping the occasional photo. By a little after noon I was pretty hungry and very cold, so I stopped in a cozy looking restaurant for lunch. Just about the time my soup arrived at the table, the really inclement weather arrived in Helsinki with freezing rain, high winds and really, really dark skies. I lingered over my lunch for about as long as I could, but the weather persisted so I decided to abandon my exploration in favor of an earlier than planned return ferry. Thus ended my brief but satisfactory visit -- a "Finnish Finish" to my "Baltic Bound" exploration -- and an even more miserable ride later I was back in my room in Tallinn. It has been a really great few weeks visiting very interesting places, but trust me folks, this is not the season to see the Baltic States at their finest!

Monday was a general mixed-use day and Tuesday afternoon I headed back over to the ferry terminal to catch my ride to Stockholm, the first of two legs that would get me back to Gdynia, Poland. The ship was another of those huge vessels that I have become accustomed to, made to feel even larger by the very few passengers on board. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when I checked into my cabin and found three Russian men already there, sitting in their underwear and drinking vodka. Why the ship booked us four in a cabin on an practically empty boat I will never understand, but that's the way it was. We all grunted greetings at each other and I tossed my bag on my bunk then headed right back out to find someplace to hang out and enjoy some quality iTunes time with my Mac. (Note: I need more iTunes money!) At about midnight I finally went back to the cabin and found it unoccupied so I climbed up on my rack and went to sleep. At about three in the morning my Russian roomies returned -- obviously from their comprehensive investigation of every bar and club on the ship -- and made just about the kind of ruckus you'd expect. In due course the alcohol must have finally kicked in because the lads pretty much passed out and I got a few more hours of sleep. In the morning I got up and found coffee, then whiled away the time until our arrival in Stockholm and disembarked promptly. Although my ferry ride was pretty bad, I humored myself that it had to have been better than the bus ride would have been.

Finnishfinish3At the port in Stockholm I took a shuttle bus to the central train station and began another "Deja-Vuish" experience. I got a ticket to Nynsham and got on the train, paying close attention to the station stop where I had to make the train change that I had almost missed the last time I did the trip. Arriving in Nynasham again was similar but different, owing primarily to the amount of snow that was on the ground -- What a difference a month can make! -- and the walk to the Polferry was correspondingly similar and different. The ferry itself was almost exactly the same, except for the fact that there were even fewer people on board than the last time. To my sheer delight I had a cabin all to myself and proceeded to stretch out for a nap before having dinner, watching both on-board movies and calling it a night. I was up early enough yesterday morning to enjoy our approach to Gdansk, then disembarked from my highly satisfactory second ferry ride. After a routine stamping at Polish immigration I got a cab here to my favorite little Villa Admiral in Gdynia and enjoyed a delightful return welcome followed by a lengthy coffee-chat about my Baltic exploration.

With that, The Voyage has reached the end of another "phase." With northern and eastern European travels behind me, I will now start heading south to begin my central European exploration. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to be back in Gdynia for a few days to catch up with myself and make some plans and arrangements going forward. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Logbook: Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn1If you've viewed the "My Bus" video below, you know the gist of my bus ride on Tuesday from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia but here are a couple of other pieces of the story: First, when we crossed the border, "The Man" came aboard and was obviously surprised to see that I was the only passenger. As he checked my passport he said, "You are the only one? You are, how do you say it, traveling like a rock star!" It was an unusual display of humor from "The Man" so I joined him in a laugh before he stamped my passport and went back out into the cold. Second, as we approached Tallinn, the driver's helper asked me if I wanted to be let off at the downtown stop or the one at the port. I told him I was staying at the Revall Inn at the port so that stop would probably be best for me, to which he replied with a thumbs up and went back to tell the driver. To my surprise, we blew right past the stop at the port and continued a couple of blocks to my hotel where the bus pulled into the drive and let me off at the front door. You just can't beat door to door service! I thanked them both for the ride, then grabbed my gear and checked in at about 1pm.

The Reval Inn is nothing fancy, but for 38 euros (about $55) you get a decent room, free breakfast and -- best of all -- free wi-fi. On top of that, the Inn's modest little restaurant has a "soup bar" at lunchtime where "all you can eat" of six different soups costs you about $5 more. Although my bus ride was one of the easiest and most comfortable I've ever had, it had still been a long day of travel that started really early and I was pretty worn out. Plus, it was really cold outside and it had started blowing snow, so I had a nice soup lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening chilling out and -- okay, I admit it -- wrapping up my viewing of Season One of "24."

Tallinn2Wednesday morning was cold and overcast, but it wasn't raining or snowing so I headed out for a few hours of exploration. I walked around most of the "Old Town" and had this picture taken at a viewpoint in "Upper Old Town." As you can see, the Old Town is compact and attractive, similar to others I've been to in the region but perhaps a little cleaner and a bit less touristy. It has its share of churches and really old buildings, and is situated right near the port as evidenced by the ferry boat in the right hand background. I had read and heard so many good things about Tallinn's Old Town that I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I enjoyed walking around, but I didn't really get a sense of what is so great about it. I have to acknowledge and repeat, of course, that this "isn't the season" and it was pretty deserted and closed up while I was there. As you can see, I was pretty bundled up because it was really cold and after a few hours of exploration I was ready once again for a nice soup lunch followed by a comfy afternoon and evening.

The weather on Thursday was really lousy again, with wind, rain, snow, sleet and just about everything in between. I briefly ventured out a few times to gather information at the port about ferry options for moving on and things like that, but I mostly stayed in and spent the time online doing all the usual calling, surfing, etc. Seriously folks, it takes a lot more than you might think to research, plan, arrange and coordinate everything on The Voyage!

Tallinn3You may recall that while I was on my city tour in Warsaw I met a nice young man who lives here in Tallinn. His name is Hannes and when I called him to say I was in town he suggested we meet for lunch "downtown" in the new part of the city. So, walking from the port area and past the Old Town yesterday, I spent some time exploring modern Tallinn which, on the whole, it is a collection of steel and glass towers with more under construction. There are also the typical "old" buildings that have been converted for use by business or government, along with numerous Soviet-era structures that have been similarly put to use. Obviously, the city is growing and expanding which is consistent with what I have heard and seen pretty much everywhere in the Baltic States. I met Hannes in "Freedom Square" and we went to his favorite nearby pub where we had a lively and informative conversation during which I interrogated him pretty thoroughly about everything I could think of relating to Estonia. By and large, he has a positive outlook on the future of Estonia, though he is careful to point out that the explosive Post-soviet boom is due for a cooling off period before it stabilizes on a going forward basis. In other words, the country may have gotten a little bit ahead of itself and the economics -- especially real estate prices -- may face a little correction. Nevertheless, he is confident that it will be a "soft landing" and he personally believes Estonia -- and especially real estate here -- is a good investment. From what I have seen, I am inclined to agree because -- of the three Baltic cities I have now explored -- Tallinn seems least affected by the past and most progressive.

Tallinn4Saying that Tallinn is the least affected by the past is not to say that it has not been influenced by -- or does not reflect -- its history. On the contrary, it is a city that has centuries of history and it reflects all of them as my exploration today revealed. With a decent weather day to work with -- that is to say cold and gray but not very inclement -- I started early with a typical two-hour city bus tour that covered a large cross section of the history and geography of the city. With that orientation behind me, I set out on my own to take a look on foot at some aspects which caught my attention. One is the vast array of architecture that the city has on display. In this photo, for example, you can see a rather dilapidated wooden house from the 1800's that has a modern "functional" building right next to it. The story goes that the old wooden houses were the pride and mainstay of the city in the Pre-Soviet era but which fell on hard times during the Soviet era. After all, if you don't own it why take care of it, right? Anyway, as the wooden houses deteriorated, they were replaced by the kind of structure you see on the right. You can draw your own conclusions, of course, so all I will say is that it is fascinating to see how political and economic eras are reflected in the buildings. There are a number of pictures in Photo Log which will give you a broader view. Another highlight of my exploration was a visit to the local maritime museum which, upon first impression, looks completely run down and deserted. To my surprise and delight, a WWII era submarine is on display and I was given an excellent tour by a nice man who served on it as a cadet after the war. There is also an early-1900's steam powered ice breaker of which I was given an similarly interesting tour. A quick look at a Soviet-era prison rounded out my day and pretty much wrapped up my exploration of Tallinn. All in all, this has been an extremely worthwhile visit, consistent with my stops in Vilnius and Riga. I am very glad I decided to be "Baltics Bound" for the past couple of weeks and would look forward to spending more time here -- particularly during "the season" -- in the future.

Going forward, I plan to take a fast ferry tomorrow over to Helsinki, Finland for a quick look then come back here in the evening. Considering how long it would take to retrace the train and bus routes I took to get here on my way back to Gdynia, I decided to make it easier on myself with two overnight ferry rides. So, after spending Monday here in Tallinn, I will take a ferry over to Stockholm on Tuesday then catching the same ferry as I did before from Nynasham to Gdansk on Wednesday as my route to arrive back in Gdynia on Thursday. So, I will be pretty much on the move this week and you can look forward to the next posting sometime next weekend. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dram: Netstonia

Netstonia1 Netstonia2
Estonia really "gets" the internet, and hi-speed wi-fi connection is available practically everywhere here in the capital city of Tallinn. When I asked the receptionist at my budget little hotel if wi-fi was available, she looked at me like I was from another planet and said, "Of course, and it is free." Color me happy. Everywhere I have been in my exploration around the city, I have seen people using their laptops. Besides in the usual places like hotel lobbies and cafes, you see people who are obviously online in virtually every restaurant, pub and public area. Rumor has it that you can even check your email while you are filling your tank at the gas station. When I saw the sign above in the middle of a public green space, I had to shake my head: Free wireless internet is even available at your favorite park bench. Amazing. For a little country that has only recently begun its economic development after "the Soviet days", Estonia is way ahead of every "developed" country I have been to in terms of ubiquitous internet access. Then again, it occurs to me that a number of the smaller, less developed countries I have been to are noteworthy for their relative level of internet access. Come to think of it, the least available, slowest and most expensive internet access I have had on the entire Voyage has been in the USA. Go figure.

Dram: My Bus

You just never know what's going to happen on The Voyage and here's a little video Dram to prove it. Of all the bus rides I've taken, this was one of the most memorable -- and unusual -- for a very special reason. Seriously folks, you can't make this stuff up! Enjoy!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Logbook: Riga, Latvia

Riga1My bus ride on Friday from Vilnius to Riga was the first significant bus ride I've taken since my TICA Bus days through Central America almost exactly a year ago. As it turns out, EuroLines is to the Baltic States almost exactly what the TICA Bus is to Central America -- an efficient, no frills "people mover" between capital cities. With daily runs on the Warsaw-Vilnius-Riga-Tallinn route, the bus actually has some advantages over the trains. You can't get up to walk around like you can on the train, but the bus is even cheaper and actually a little bit faster. Besides, since you can't get a train from Riga to Tallinn without going into Russia, most folks have to take the bus for that leg anyway. If you travel to the Baltics -- which I strongly suggest you do -- your best bet is to take the bus all the way, and look into the "Baltic Pass" which can save you even more money depending on how many legs you are going to do. Then again, at about $15 for the five hour ride from Vilnius to Riga, how much can you really save?

Although the bus was pretty full, I lucked out and had two seats to myself -- no small luxury on a five hour ride! My other luxury, of course, is my combination of iPods which let me catch up on my favorite Podcasts -- both audio and video -- plus watch an episode or two of "24" which -- I admit -- I am totally hooked on! The ride itself was uneventful, with only one moment worth sharing: At the border between Lithuania and Latvia, "The Man" came aboard to check passports and since everyone except me was from one country or the other, their passports were looked at and immediately returned. Mine was looked at, thumbed through then taken by "The Man" off the bus. We sat and waited for the next ten minutes until "The Man" came back, walked down the aisle, handed me my passport without a word then turned around and got off the bus followed by our immediate departure. Although I didn't get any sense of anyone's consternation about the delay, it was a little weird to be so obviously singled out!

While planning my "Baltics Bound" exploration, I had read and hear that Riga is a beautiful city, but my first impressions were not very positive. Of course, the bus station area of any city usually isn't very nice, and it was already almost dark by the time we arrived at around three in the afternoon. Plus, the weather was really cold and pouring down a mixture of rain, sleet and slushy snow. What city could look good with all that going on, right? I quickly made my way a block or so to the edge of the "Old Town" and found a decent little place to stay, went online for a while then went out for an early dinner of hot soup and called it an early night.

Riga2The weather on Saturday was even worse, rivaling some of my time in Antarctica for cold, wet, windy and raw. I immediately declared it an "inside day" and spent most of it in my room, catching up online, reading my book and watching some more episodes of "24" which - did I mention? -- I am totally hooked on! I did go out in the middle of the day to get some more hot soup for lunch, and made a swing through the immense public market area. Situated in and around five huge WWI-era zeppelin hangars, the market was packed with people despite the terrible weather. I was practically agog wandering around, almost overwhelmed by the size of it. I've been in a lot of markets during my travels, and this one is probably the biggest I've ever seen. What makes it really fascinating is that each of the five hangar buildings seems to have a "theme" for its products -- with one containing nothing but meat stalls, another produce, another clothing, etc. -- and in between the hangars you can find more traditional supermarkets and shops. I don't know what it was like during "the Soviet days" but it certainly is "raging commerce" today. A couple of hours of that really wore me out, and I was happy to get back to my comfy room for another bad-weather-induced early night!

Riga3I pulled back the curtains with some trepidation yesterday morning, but was delighted to find blue sky! I hit the streets early and made the most of it, starting with a two hour "overview" bus tour. With that orientation behind me, I walked for hours in what really is a beautiful city after all. (I've put some of the best of the pictures in the Photos page so you can see for yourself.) The key thing to keep in mind about Riga -- like most of its neighbors -- is that it has been under the rule of foreigners for most of its history: Germany starting in the 12th century and continuing with Poland in the 16th, Sweden in the 17th and Russia in the 18th. What's different about Riga is that it has not had the same kind of destruction in wartime that many of its neighbors have had, so it has representative architecture from each period. Also, as a thriving port city, Riga did not experience as much economic devastation during adverse occupation. Thus, walking around the city is a joyful mix of impressive buildings and lovely green spaces. If you are "into" architecture, Riga should be at the very top of your list of places to visit.

Riga4As for the people -- and while I have no complaints -- Riga has a different kind of "feel" to it. Mostly, I suspect, because this is the farthest into Easter Europe that I have been, I don't look like the local folks. Despite the fact that my clothing is dark like theirs, I think my general features make me appear obviously "Western." While there hasn't been anything the least bit negative, I have not felt entirely comfortable here. Perhaps because the city is "culturally divided" -- almost 50% of the people are of Russian rather than "native Latvian" origin -- I'm picking up on those "vibes." I don't know. My point is that when you visit here -- which you should -- don't be surprised if there's a certain "feeling" that makes you go, "Hmmm." Like elsewhere in the region, most young people generally speak pretty good English so language is not a problem, but service is generally pretty poor so you need to be patient. All in all, I have really enjoyed Riga and strongly recommend it for a visit, but I'm not inclined to "invest" myself in it.

Today has been a good mixed-use day as I prepare for a "travel day" tomorrow to Tallinn, Estonia. Besides making my arrangements going forward, I've prepared for another day on the bus. I've filled my feed bag, charged my iPods, picked up a new book and enjoyed some continued good weather to walk around in anticipation of another long sit. Everything is ship shape on The Voyage!